Friday, September 27, 2013

Citizen Kane (1941)

Is Citizen Kane the greatest film ever made? Well I can't say with conviction that this is true. It's definitely not my favorite movie. It's not a pleasant movie. I am willing to say that it is a classic that every film lover should see, however.
Citizen Kane tells the story of publishing magnate Charles Foster Kane. The film begins with his death, and then through newsreels and flashbacks we gradually learn something about him. He is born into poverty  but gold or oil or something is discovered on land owned by his parents when he is about ten years old. So a bank trustee buys the land and pays for Charles' education. On a day he is enjoying sledding in the Colorado snow, the bank trustee Mr. Thatcher (George Coulouris) shows up and suddenly takes him away from his parents (Agnes Moorehead plays his mother in her screen debut). Several years later he is now played by Orson Welles and wants his independence from Mr. Thatcher. He buys a local newspaper and succeeds at publishing by mixing yellow journalism and man-on-the-street populism. He travels the world and becomes more and more famous. He marries the niece of a President. He runs for Governor, but on the eve of his election victory his opponent threatens him with exposure of a mistress. He doesn't give in and drop out, so the scandal is exposed. This destroys his campaign as well as his marriage. He marries his mistress and pushes her to be an opera singer even though she is not driven to succeed. Eventually he builds an opera house where she performs, although critics not affiliated with his his newspapers are harsh in their assessment of her talents (or lack of). When she tries to commit suicide he finally allows her to quit. Then, after years of being cooped up in a mansion called Xanadu, she decides to divorce him. The film ends where it began: the death of Kane. 

This is a straight-forward summary of the plot, but the first uniqueness of the film is in the way it tells its story. It starts at the end, with Kane's death. A newsreel is used to summarize his life and background information to the reporters (and we, the audience). One reporter (William Alland) is assigned to find out why Kane's last word was "Rosebud." The rest of the story is told through flashbacks via interviews or diary postings. This means that the story isn't told linearly or chronologically, and that sometimes the same scenes are told from two different points of view. That means that you have to engage with the film to actively pay attention; you just can't sit back and let the story flow over you. Because Welles and his Mercury Theater Company came from radio, it's a different sensibility.
see Kane in the reflection in the window? technically brilliant!
Also, the soundtrack to the film resembles much more closely what modern audiences expect from background music. If you watch (listen?) to other films of this time period the music tends to be used as sweeping opening or closing themes or as crescendos for specifically dramatic moments. In Citizen Kane the music is more like a supporting character; it's there in the background adding a little bit of "feel" to each scene.
And what scenes! There are several that are classics because of how they are staged, or filmed, or lighted. When the reporter goes to read the diaries of Mr. Thatcher, the light hits the table in the reading room in such a way as to keep everything else (including the truth?) in shadow. In fact, throughout the film the lighting and staging is such that the reporters, representing us, are almost always literally in the dark. When Kane as a boy is being dispersed to New York, the scene in his parents' lodge has everybody in the scene in tight focus: not just the figures in the foreground, but Charles, who is outside playing in the snow, as well. When Kane is confronted by his political opponent the Governor, their scene is filmed from below, symbolizing their fall into purgatory or worse? The patterns on the wall an of the staircase also help symbolize his ranting.  
However, even with all of these technically wonderful accomplishments for Citizen Kane, I still consider the film to be a flawed classic. I don't want to give too much away if you haven't actually seen this film. Suffice it to say that if you love movies, you should see it. Still, if the emotional core of the film is Kane being given up to Mr. Thatcher by his parents, shouldn't we be shown a little bit more of this? Was handing off your child a customary practice at the turn of the century, so needed no embellishment by Welles? Did his parents never try to get in touch with him after he moved to New York? There's a line by his mother that makes it sound as if his father was beating him, and that's why she wanted Charles shipped away. But if, as one of the characters later says, "All he wanted out of life was love," shouldn't this whole scenario have been more prominent?
scene filmed with everyone in extreme focus
Also, it seems to be established that young Kane is a populist and interested in doing what's right. He writes an editorial to this effect as soon as he takes over his first newspaper. His more cynical friend Leland (Joseph Cotten) chides him about it at the time. Somehow, during the course of the film Kane starts to become a power hungry mogul instead. Eventually he and Leland have a falling out, and Kane fires him. I would have liked to have seen more of this process from populist to egomaniac. The most we get is a series of dinner scenes between Kane and his wife. She is never given any characterization at all, which is also a flaw of the film. She seems socially conscious, telling him, "What will people think?" to which he replies, "Whatever I tell them to think!" For a man who is looking for love, you would think we would be shown more of their courtship and life together. Instead she is suddenly there, and then, just as suddenly, not there. Once she divorces him she and his son end up dying in a car accident, so their voices are not part of the ensemble. I think this was a critical mistake in the story-telling. Instead all we get is the point of view of his second wife,  Susie (Dorothy Comingore), who doesn't know who he is when they first meet.  They bond because she has just as lonely a heart as he has. Once she is discovered, however, his pride insists that he not only marry her but "make something of her." Her scenes are the best is the film. When she cries, "You never give me anything I really care about!" her sadness and frustration are palpable. 
Kane making his editorial oath with Leland
A word about the scandal of the film. At the time it was made there was considerable talk that it was based on the life of real-life newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst. He had it banned from being mentioned in any of his newspapers, and fought RKO (the producers) to get it black-listed. Because of this the film was not a financial success at the time of its release. However, looking into the stories Hearst and Kane really don't seem similar to me. They both ran newspapers and they both had mistresses. That's about all that I could find. A different Chicago tycoon divorced his wife and married an opera singer. And another tycoon still built his less-than-talented wife an opera house where she could perform. It seems to me that Welles took a few stories of egocentric millionaires and put together a fictional character. Too bad Hearst didn't see it that way.

Technically, Citizen Kane is a masterpiece because of how it is structured and because it has numerous classically staged scenes. However, much like the man Charles Foster Kane himself, the film is at heart, disappointing. Was it better than How Green Was My Valley, the film the Academy chose as Best Picture of 1941? Hell, yes. Is it the best film ever made? Maybe. The most I'm willing to concede is that it is probably the best-made US film.
"I would have liked to have thanked the Academy...."
Although Citizen Kane was not named Best Picture, it was nominated for nine Academy Awards:
Best Picture, Best Director (Orson Welles), Best Actor (Orson Welles), Best Score (Drama), Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Sound, and Best Editing. As a director Welles was beaten by John Ford (How Green Was My Valley) and as an actor Welles was beaten by Gary Cooper in Sgt. York. The film won only one award: Best Screenplay, which Welles shared with Herman J. Mankiewicz.
This trailer from 1940 is obviously written for the radio's fun and unique, and made mostly independently from the film, as most of the scenes shown here are not in the movie! 

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